New Life For St. Louis Landmark


Opening of Peabody Opera House a dream come true for Kirkwood's "Kiel Man" Ed Golterman



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Ed Golterman poses next to one of the iconic bears in front of the Market Street entrance to the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
September 30, 2011
After being "dark" for 20 years, Kiel Opera House will reopen Oct. 1 as Peabody Opera House, and no one is happier than Kirkwood resident Ed Golterman. Golterman, a singer and former broadcast news reporter now known as "Kiel Man," has spent the past 13 years preaching the gospel of reopening the grand concert hall.

The last performance at Kiel Opera House was on May 4, 1991, featuring a concert by the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra. The renovated concert hall at Market and 14th streets in downtown St. Louis will reopen with a show starring comedian Jay Leno and singer Aretha Franklin to benefit the John L. Trotter Multiple Sclerosis Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Naturally Golterman will be there.

"It's going to be just sensational," Golterman said. "The main theater is unmatched."

The opera house closed in May 1991 when then-owners of the St. Louis Blues hockey team tore down the adjoining Kiel Auditorium to build a new hockey arena, which opened in 1994 as Kiel Civic Center. The Blues owners also own the arena and the opera house. The promise was that the opera house, which first opened in 1934, would be renovated and opened again in 1994. But the team changed ownership, the arena's name changed twice, and the opera house remained closed.

Ed Golterman's grandfather, Guy Golterman, produced opera and classical music concerts in the early days of Kiel. Kiel was named for Henry Kiel, who served as St. Louis mayor from 1913 to 1925 and was instrumental in getting the auditorium and opera house built with bond issue funding.

The younger Golterman tirelessly beat the drum to the media and the public to make the powers-that-be honor the promise to reopen the Opera House. He even published a book, "The Mugging of Kiel Opera House," in 2008 detailing Kiel's history and his theories on the political and commercial forces that kept the building closed.

Then a new Blues ownership group, SCP Worldwide LLC led by David W. Checketts, entered the scene in 2006. Checketts, who grew up in Salt Lake City and lives in Connecticut, previously oversaw a major renovation of Radio City Music Hall as CEO of Madison Square Garden.

"When (Checketts) bought the Blues five years ago, he had his eyes on the opera house as something that had value from the very beginning," said Chris McKee, CEO of Optimus LLC, the developer and a co-owner of the Opera House, along with Joe McKee, his brother.

Joe McKee is CEO of Paric Corp., which is the general contractor on the renovation project. Gary Martinez of Martinez and Johnson Architecture led the historic restoration effort.

Although Checketts' group never sought input from Golterman, he gave it anyway. Even before the sale closed, Golterman began sending Checketts background about the opera house.

Five years and $78.7 million later — thanks to a complex combination of city, federal, state and private funds, and naming rights sold to Peabody Energy — the opera house is back in its full glory. The main concert hall, the grand foyer, two grand staircases, marble columns, terrazzo floors and glass chandeliers all have been meticulously refurbished. Of course, the building has been modernized with updated heating and air conditioning systems and a house sound system fine-tuned for the building. The renovation work started in June 2010, ending with finishing touches just before the opening, McKee said.

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The lobby of the Peabody Opera House. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"I congratulate Gary Martinez and the McKees for a superb renovation of the main theater," Golterman said.

Golterman first got a glimpse of the renovation Sept. 19 at a sneak premiere of Ken Burns' new PBS documentary, "Prohibition."

"I looked at people," Golterman said. "Their mouths dropped open in awe."

His only complaints are minor: the "tacky" cupholders on the seats and the flat screens for sports-watching in the Kiel Club, he said.

In addition to the 3,100-seat main theater, the opera house has four smaller assembly rooms. Two of them are meeting/banquet rooms, one is the Peabody Lounge for VIPs and box seat holders, and the fourth is the Pepsi Encore Room, the only one that is configured for performances, possibly by community theater groups. All are available for event rentals, as is the Kiel Club behind the ticket lobby.

Once upon a time, Kiel Opera House was the home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Light Opera Guild and Dance St. Louis, and it hosted performances by the New York Metropolitan Opera, many Broadway touring shows, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Ray Charles, Liberace, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and many others. It was the site of a legendary appearance in June 1965 by the so-called Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson.

The first few concerts announced for the Peabody include Wilco on Oct. 4, The Who's rock opera "Tommy" featuring Roger Daltrey on Oct. 8, and Widespread Panic on Oct. 12. Green Day's rock opera "American Idiot" is scheduled for March 2 to 4.

Some future performances include the Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical," a dance concert by Shen Yun and a New Year's Eve show featuring Cedric the Entertainer. Peabody operators plan a Broadway package of four touring shows that ticket buyers can mix and match.

So far, the entertainment planned for the opera house "falls short of its history and its capability," Golterman said.

"They need to do production on that stage. It was made for big productions. I'm sure the Grinch will see full capability. Other venues in town are doing full opera, full Broadway shows," he said.

Sport Capital Holding–St. Louis LLC, an SCP affiliate that is contracted to operate the facility, is working to build a varied menu of performances reminiscent of the old days.

"You'll see the type of offerings broaden as the season continues to unfold," McKee said.

Other than the cup holders and quibbles with the entertainment lineup, "I'm very happy," Golterman said. "It was a 13-year journey. I wish it hadn't taken 13 years." But he can't resist adding one more suggestion:

"I think they need to acknowledge the first partnership. The original partners were Henry Kiel and Guy Golterman and their plan started in 1917. Ed Golterman saved it."

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